Morning download, 3.1.19

Sometimes I have second thoughts. My wild mind gets half-baked ideas that are so exciting, and the next day they don’t look that good. I took down my most recent post that was like that. It’s just not ready for public consumption.

So. New day, new topic. Please note I am not saying what follows to brag. I hope saying it gives those who need it encouragement.

For someone who was traumatized by a sudden, tragic, violent loss in childhood, who as a result had PTSD for decades before it was even a diagnosable malady — life can be good again.

I wake up happy to greet a new day, on most days. I feel balanced, grounded, centered, open, resilient, buoyant, strong, like a fountain constantly replenishing and renewing. I have more than enough.

Perhaps these good days are even sweeter because of the past. Trauma survivors, please savor and enjoy every good day, every good hour even, that comes your way.

It’s not as if the trauma in this bodymindfield is gone, over, done. Even when you’ve done a lot of work to remember, sort, get perspective, feel, self-soothe, reconcile, and heal that wounded self, a scar still resides in your nervous system. But it can disappear for long stretches of time.

You can work with your autonomic nervous system to rebalance it so that you read and respond to actual threats and to safety appropriately, but in reading what psychotherapists with 40 years of experience have to say, trauma is scar tissue in the psyche. Scar tissue will never be as healthy and resilient as unscarred skin. It’s more fragile. It’s not organized the same way at the cellular level. You can work with it to make it more pliable and reduce the scarring, but it will never be as if the trauma never happened, the skin unscarred.

Also, obviously, trauma resides in your memories, which are connected to your ANS. How often do you need to revisit those memories? Not that often for me, any more. I want to mention that some of the memories from the time of the trauma remained veiled from my conscious mind for a long time, and sometimes a memory shapes our behavior, unbidden.

Trauma is definitely something you want behind you on your timeline, not in the way of denial but in the healthy manner of moving on with your life, because healthy life beckons after trauma, if you let it. It may start with one peaceful hour.

Investigate peace, and savor it.

Facing forward, sometimes trauma from the past sneaks ahead and gets right in your face. Boo! Your ANS, which is instinctual and not really all that smart, interprets something as a threat that simply isn’t. Something happens in the present that unconsciously reminds the part of your brain that’s trying to keep you safe of a time when you were unsafe in the past, and you react sharply, as if past were present, get flooded with stress hormones, experience the fight-or-flight dance going on.

Hopefully, the thinking part of your brain will kick in to help you evaluate the situation! Are you actually in imminent danger? If the answer is no, then you get to wait it out while your system rebalances itself, recovering from the dump of stress hormones. Acupuncture and supplements for adrenal depletion can be very helpful.

Beautiful self-care is required when a memory hijacks the ANS and there is no actual threat. Be ever so kind to yourself. Rest as much as you can. Make beautiful cups of tea. Slow down. Light a candle and watch it burn. Take a long fragrant soak in the tub, preferably with Epsom salt. Just breathe. Listen to lovely music. Move your body with care. Do restorative yoga. Walk in nature. Spend time with a loving friend.

Afterwards, trauma resides in memories and the ANS. Build yourself a vast toolkit of self-care resources for the activated times.

Trauma can also play a huge role in your beliefs. We are run by our beliefs, and some of them are outside our awareness. Feeling cursed? Been there. Having bad luck with relationships? Been there. So many questions. Why me? Am I being punished? What did I do to deserve this? How can anyone love me? How could God let this happen? Does God love me?

What are some things you have believed about yourself, your life, your character, your worthiness, after a trauma?

At this point, all I can say about belief is to frame it in the healthiest way you can. If that means you acknowledge that you encountered misfortune — something that has happened to a lot of people throughout human history — and understand it’s just the way life as a human can sometimes be, and don’t take it personally, that seems like a great start. You didn’t cause this, you didn’t deserve it, you are not being punished, you are not cursed. You ran into some bad luck, that’s all.

This is how you build resilience and move on. If you need a little healthy delusion, I say go for it. If rocks or essential oils or photos of Ramana Maharshi soften the harshness, use them. I do.

Beliefs are about what’s important. Identity is who you are. By working with your beliefs, you start to change your identity.

NLP Neuro-Logical Levels of Change.

We live our lives inside a huge mystery. Theoretical physicists say that two thirds of all existence consists of dark energy, and no one knows what it is. I just love this, my favorite new factoid! We.Don’t.Know.What’s.Going.On.

So feel free to make something up that works for you, that gives you strength and courage and takes the weight of oppression or unworthiness off you, so you can rise up to meet the rest of your life. Why not?

By all means, take credit for and celebrate the good stuff — for taking right action, or coming to understand what that means or if that was even possible then. For persisting in the face of hardship. For recovering some of your mental health. For those who understand and accept you, or are willing to make that attempt. For self-care and self-compassion. For bonding with all of humanity through your compassion for all suffering. For finding your path.

After trauma, you get to work with your autonomic nervous system, your memories, and your beliefs. Exploring and reframing your beliefs are where you can make the most difference. Have courage. You’re worth it.

Morning download, 2.22.19

Yesterday was rough. A dear friend for over 20 years was in the hospital having breast cancer surgery with preparation for reconstruction. We’d had ceremony Wednesday night for support, a gathering of friends to hold her and another friend with a serious health issue in our big collective heart as we move through this difficult part of the journey, walking each other home.

I shared part of that ceremony with three other women, and we laughed a lot. Fishermen’s Friend does that to people. May our laughter contribute to the healing of all.

Dear goddess, bless you for the gift of levity in the face of the unknown.

The surgery was longer than expected — 9 hours. Pauline’s older sister Marie was there at the hospital with her, and I was Marie’s contact person to post progress in the ceremony’s Facebook event for all to see.

Surgery started at 8. By 10:30 am, Marie shared that the sentinel lymph node that was removed and examined was cancer free. Good news. Marie said the surgeons expected her to go to the recovery room about 3-4 pm.

At 5 pm, I’d heard nothing and contacted Marie. Marie texted that Pauline was in recovery but she (Marie) was still waiting for the doctors to come talk to her.

And then, finally, the news came that both surgeons were pleased with the outcome. Whew.

I also did some deep digging and writing yesterday morning to a friend on something he’d challenged me to examine. I love doing that kind of self-examining work, and I needed time to let it cook into coherence.

It takes attention to go within so deeply. I went back to a time when my legs went out from under me, the beginning of not wanting to be here, having learned very young of the existence of unspeakable cruelty in a very personal way. Wrote it, sent it, went out to meet the day.

After my morning obligations were met — and my networking group laughed a lot — again, thank you, dear goddess — I came home and crashed. I needed my own space and stillness to let my earlier self-examination continue to unwind its gifts and flow through me with attentive care.

I lay in a heap of exhausted sorrow and realized this happens when I go there. It depletes me to remember. This is why I don’t do it often and not just for anybody. It’s always for me, really. I could have said no, but I was curious about where my behavior was coming from too.

I cried. My tears felt good and tasted salty.

I didn’t get stuck with the raw bleeding heart sensation. It was there but wasn’t as intense. It’s open and tender today, a bit achy.

It’s vulnerable, revisiting a trauma. Sometimes the truth — or a truth, because when the spiral comes back around, truth will be different, with different insights — is hard fucking won.

I learned something valuable about myself, that I need to push, and sometimes I push against others, and it’s probably not very pleasant to receive. I come across as blaming and misunderstanding, rightly so, on a superficial level. I grasp at an excuse to push. And really, it’s an indicator that I need to set a healthy boundary and perhaps offer a challenge myself.

Where does this behavior come from? I push to get out of the box, the box of being violated, disrespected, dishonored, crushed, silenced, dominated, overpowered, overlooked, robbed of my agency, minimized, underestimated, isolated.

I push to make space for me, to stand on my feet, connected to heaven and earth with the horizontal embrace of humanity as well, life force flowing through me freely.

I am a troubled person too sometimes, and I’m working on it. I’m trying to think of a name for the troubled part of me, because I can, much of the time, come from a healthy place, and when this troubled part comes out, I’m usually aware of it but sometimes not, and I need others to help me see it so I can do my healing work.

I’m learning toward Harriet, because I don’t know anyone named Harriet. “I’m wondering if Harriet would like to say something.” “Hi, Harriet. What are you experiencing now?” “Harriet, what do you need?”

Do you have any other suggestions for a name?

Eventually my energy moved toward equilibrium, and to cheer myself up, I remembered my favorite cartoon, What’s Opera, Doc? I must have watched it half a dozen times. Elmer and Bugs sing Wagner. Elmer is pretty funny, but Bugs is my cartoon hero. He’s brash, witty, unpredictable, a wisecracking carrot-eating trickster — and oh, yeah, he’s Jewish.

Third time: thank you, goddess and Chuck Jones, for the gift of levity.

Then the good news about my dear friend’s surgery.

Feeling so much appreciation for my offspring, my sistren and my brethren, for the ability to process and learn, to dive for a fish and come back up with one in my hands. Today, it’s all good.

After #MeToo, Aikido.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 12.27.09 PM

Source: http://upliftconnect.com/aikido-conflict/. Many thanks.

Times are changing. The sheer number of women who have come forward with tales of being sexually harassed or assaulted by Harvey Weinstein has opened up a national conversation that is long overdue.`

The many #MeToo tales of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape shared on Facebook and Twitter have made it clear: this situation is not just happening in Hollywood. It’s common. It is rare that a woman has never experienced such inappropriate sexual behavior. Millions of women — and teen girls, and girl children — have been touched in a sexual way that they did not want. And we’ve pretty much normalized it, except in especially heinous cases such as Bill Cosby and the occasional gang rape or murder or famous person.

Continue reading

A tale of recovery: my path from traumatized to healer

I had lunch a few weeks ago with John, someone I’ve known for about 12 years but haven’t seen much in recent years. He commented that I am a very different person now from when he met me, and that would not be apparent to people who hadn’t known me that long.

When we met in 2004 (I think), I seemed troubled to him, and I was. John said that now, I appear to be happy and “like a fountain” (which I love), and he was curious about that.

Other people have said I’ve changed more than anyone they know. Well, that’s probably because I was starting from a more troubled place than most.

So I’m reviewing my path in search of insights to share. This is for you, John, and I know that some of you are interested in recovery from trauma, and some of you are interested in personal growth, so this is for you too.

Continue reading

Link

Trauma never goes completely away

My friend Spike shared a link to this New York Times article on Facebook, and since trauma and recovery are themes on this blog, I thought I’d share it here. The author, a psychiatrist, writes about how trauma and grief never go completely away.

Can’t get over it? You may now stop trying and believing that you have to or that something is wrong with you because you haven’t or can’t.

My mother’s knee-jerk reaction, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” is very common. There is a rush to normal in many of us that closes us off, not only to the depth of our own suffering but also, as a consequence, to the suffering of others….

The reflexive rush to normal is counterproductive. In the attempt to fit in, to be normal, the traumatized person (and this is most of us) feels estranged.

Mr. Rogers and 5 random acts of kindness for each person who died

This has been quoted on Facebook about how to help young children who encounter scary things in the news:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. ~ Fred Rogers

Here’s a link to the whole web page from which the quote came.

This is part of why I don’t own a television:

The way that news is presented on television can be quite confusing for a young child. The same video segment may be shown over and over again through the day, as if each showing was a different event. Someone who has died turns up alive and then dies again and again. Children often become very anxious since they don’t understand much about videotape replays, closeups, and camera angles. Any televised danger seems close to home to them because the tragic scenes are taking place on the TV set in their own living room. Children can’t tell the difference between what’s close and what’s far away, what’s real and what’s pretend, or what’s new and what’s re-run.

It’s not just children who become very anxious. Your consciousness is taking it in. Even though I’ve been an adult for a long time, and I’ve been conditioned about what “reality” is, watching the events of 9-11 really brought it home to me: the way “the news” televises tragedies is traumatizing. So many replays, so much repetition to get all “the facts” right, so much effort to keep people glued to their sets, feeling horrified and helpless, while taking in those images and words over and over again.

Turn off the news. Go for a walk. Pray and take care of yourself and your family. And look for solutions.

One Facebook friend (Ginger Webb, whom I’ve never met but whose fabulous herbal products I buy and recommend) proposed doing five random acts of kindness for each person who died.

I like that. I so wish that our government would enact gun control laws and make treatment for PTSD free and accessible for everyone. We do not need to be as highly armed as we are, and we’re not doing a very good job keeping guns out of the hands of the emotionally disturbed.

It will take time and effort for that to happen, and it may not, judging by the past. This time could be different, though. Please let your voice be heard.

Meanwhile, put some good into the world. You never know how stressed or hurting someone might really be, and how meaningful your unexpected kindness could be.

Intuition, microexpressions, hypervigilance, and trauma

When Intuition Is A Curse.

When people come into my office and tell me, very early in a conversation, that they are ‘intuitive’ and ‘can see into people’ I often wonder if they have had trauma. The longer I do this for a living the more I realize that some of us developed our insights into humanity as a protection mechanism. It makes sense. People who have experienced trauma tend to be more intuitive. We’ve experienced hypervigilance where we are constantly scanning our environments for signs of danger.

Have you experienced trauma, and are you intuitive, psychic, an empath, and/or clairvoyant? I’m curious.

This article reminded me that early this year, I witnessed some microexpressions, when emotions that someone is trying to suppress appear briefly on their face. Paul Ekman has done a lot of research into them. The TV show Lie To Me is based on his work. Reading them may have a lot to do with intuition.

I noticed hatred and contempt appear fleetingly behind a mask of apparent calm and reason on the face of a man I had dated for a couple of months as he spoke to me. He was unaware of them or that I could read them.

It was disturbing. I could not think of anything I had done to merit those emotions, and I felt hurt and puzzled. From that and other puzzling oddities, I suspected he’d been emotionally abused. He hadn’t mentioned it to me, but his behavior had been strange at times. A mutual friend confirmed years of past abuse. Apparently I had unknowingly done something that triggered his memories of being abused.

After learning of the history of abuse, I felt compassion for him. I also realized I didn’t want to be alone with him in private again.

Later he got his wires crossed again, in public, right in front of me. Curious (because he still hadn’t told me anything about the abuse), I then had a clairvoyant experience in which I “saw” that he’d been the subject of horrific psychotic rage repeatedly for years.

I had a major fight-or-flight reaction.

I rode it out with mindfulness as much as I could. Once the biochemical cascade was underway, there was not much to do but wait for it to fully subside and do what I could to recover my equilibrium. It took a few months for that to happen. I watched my fearful, self-protective mind at work, influenced by deep stress. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m glad it’s over. Although unpleasant and difficult, being able to witness my own experience was useful.

I learned a lot from this. A main take-away is that if I am relating to someone who’s been traumatized, I want them to be up-front about it pretty quickly, if they have any awareness of it at all. It leaks out anyway if they try to hide it, and they come across as untrustworthy.

Over 60 percent of Americans experience trauma at least once in their lives. It’s not that uncommon.

I gained compassion for my past traumatized self, before I had done any healing work. I didn’t know myself well enough to understand how much trauma had shaped me.

During that time of riding out the biochemical cascade, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I am grateful for the healers who helped me recover, including the healer inside me.

I felt compassion for him. He was admittedly clueless, dissociated, and good at compartmentalizing. In my opinion, he seriously needed professional help.

I grokked his disappointment at leaving an abuser with hopes for a better future, waiting six months after divorcing and taking a course on building new relationships before dating, only to discover that the abuse had made him both easily disturbed by those with positive intentions and disturbing to them.

It was sobering to refer someone I dated to therapy. In hindsight, I think I showed him how a fairly healthy person responds when they are dating or befriending someone who shows signs and symptoms of mental illness, who is either hiding it, discounting its seriousness, or so injured he doesn’t even know he has a mental illness.

I let him know that I knew, told him that I would not have dated him had I known, and I ended our relationship until such time as he has recovered, urging him to get professional help to that end.

It seems probable that he needed to know how someone would do this. But damn, that was really freaky.

May his cluelessness become curiosity.

May his compartmentalization become wholeness and expansion.

May his fears become worthy of reconditioning.

May his dissociation occur only when useful, and may he learn to live in partnership with his body.

May his awareness include an appreciation of the gifts of the unconscious mind and a more conscious partnership with it.

May his contempt, hatred, terror, shame, and secrecy be transformed and his burden be lessened.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” ~ Joseph Campbell

And after I think of him and send energetic blessings his way, I dissolve all thoughts and images of him and bring my attention back to my own body and experience peace and gratitude.

But was my intuition working because I’ve experienced trauma myself and learned to be observant? I don’t know. Here’s a possibility: Apparently some long-time meditators are also adept at reading microexpressions.

From studies with thousands of people, Ekman knew that people who do better at recognizing these subtle emotions are more open to new experience, more interested and more curious about things in general. They are also conscientious — reliable and efficient. “So I had expected that many years of meditative experience” — which requires both openness and conscientiousness — “might make them do better on this ability,” Ekman explains. Thus he had wondered if Öser might be better able to identify these ultra-fast emotions than other people are.

Then Ekman announced his results: both Öser and another advanced Western meditator Ekman had been able to test were two standard deviations above the norm in recognizing these super-quick facial signals of emotion, albeit the two subjects differed in the emotions they were best at perceiving. They both scored far higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. “They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges — even Secret Service agents,” the group that had previously distinguished itself as most accurate.

“It appears that one benefit of some part of the life paths these two have followed is becoming more aware of these subtle signs of how other people feel,” Ekman notes. Öser had super-acuity for the fleeting signs of fear, contempt and anger. The other meditator — a Westerner who, like Öser, had done a total of two to three years in solitary retreats in the Tibetan tradition — was similarly outstanding, though on a different range of emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust and, like Öser, anger.

I’m not nearly as experienced at meditation as these men, but even at my level, meditation can slow the experience of time down until there is only the present moment, which becomes vast, and awareness simply expands.

If you can experience time like that, microexpressions would be much more apparent.

That’s one explanation. Or maybe I’ve just been around the block a few times. Or maybe these long-time meditators had also trauma in their histories. The article didn’t say.

I do know that for years, I’ve been interested in people-reading, and I imagine at some point early on, there was a connection in discerning whether they were safe to be around. But once you realize someone is not out to murder you, there’s still a lot to learn. We humans are pretty fascinating and diverse.

If you want to learn more about reading microexpressions, Paul Ekman (link above) has a newsletter and online training.

Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system

Back in March 2012, I posted that I had started reading Peter A. Levine’s latest book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. My post included excerpts from Levine’s description of being hit by a car and his experience afterwards.

His experience serves as a useful model for being and staying present through trauma and recovery. He knew how to allow his body and emotions to process naturally so that he did not get stuck in a traumatic state (i.e., PTSD).

Well, I am still reading that book. It’s very, very rich. Some parts are rather scientific. I’m taking my time to really understand it.

Levine uses polyvagal theory (I just posted an interview with Stephen Porges, who came up with the theory) to explain the states that people experience and can get stuck in from traumatic experiences.

Because Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and other therapists (as well as astute loved ones) who are helping someone recovery from trauma need to know which layer of the nervous system is dominant at any given time in a traumatized individual, I am going to describe them.

First, the primary job of our nervous system is to protect us. We have senses that alert us to danger. We may react to a perception of a threat in our bodies before it ever becomes conscious in the mind. That’s because the autonomic nervous system (which is not under our control) is involved when trauma occurs. We react instinctually.

This is good to know. It means that your trauma reactions are automatic, not something you can control, so there’s no need to feel shame or blame yourself. You were doing the best you could.

There are two defensive states that occur when encountering trauma: immobility/dissociation/shutdown (freeze) and sympathetic hyperarousal (fight or flight).

I’m going to write about them in separate posts to avoid being too lengthy.

The more primitive nervous system state is immobility. (Primitive in that evolutionarily it comes from jawless and cartilaginous fish and precedes sympathetic hyperarousal.)

It is triggered when a person perceives that death is imminent, from an external or internal threat.

Levine also uses the terms dissociation, shutdown, and freeze/frozen to describe this state. Note: If you’re an NLPer, dissociation means the separation of components of subjective experience from one another, such as cutting off the emotional component of a memory and simply remembering the visual and/or auditory components. (Source: Encyclopedia of NLP)

Keep in mind that Levine is talking about dissociation as an involuntary post-traumatic physiological state that trauma victims can sometimes get stuck with. There may be some overlap. According to Levine, symptoms of being in this state include frequent spaciness, unreality, depersonalization, and/or various somatic and health complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, migraines, some forms of asthma, persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and general disengagement from life.

Levine notes:

This last-ditch immobilization system is meant to function acutely and only for brief periods. When chronically activated, humans become trapped in the gray limbo of nonexistence, where one is neither really living nor actually dying. The therapist’s first job in reaching such shut down clients is to help them mobilize their energy: to help them, first, to become aware of their physiological paralysis and shutdown in a way that normalizes it, and to shift toward (sympathetic) mobilization. 

The more primitive the operative system, the more power it has to take over the overall function of the organism. It does this by inhibiting the more recent and more refined neurological subsystems, effectively preventing them from functioning. In particular, the immobilization system all but completely suppresses the social engagement/attachment system.

Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system.

Signs that someone is operating from this state include:

  • constricted pupils
  • fixed or spaced-out eyes
  • collapsed posture (slumped forward)
  • markedly reduced breathing
  • abrupt slowing and feebleness of the heart rate
  • skin color that is a pasty, sickly white or even gray in color

Brainwise, volunteers in the immobility state exhibited a decrease in activity of the insula and the cingulate cortex. In one study, about 30% of PTSD sufferers experienced immobility and 70% experienced hyperarousal, with a dramatic increase of activity in these brain areas. Most traumatized people exhibit some symptoms from both nervous systems, Levine says.

I feel the deepest compassion for people in this state, because I have experienced it myself: the spaciness, depersonalization, sense of unreality, and passive, disengaged attitude toward life. It was many years ago. If I could, I would reach back in time to that injured woman and give her resources she just didn’t have back then.

I feel so grateful for the trauma recovery work I’ve done, both with a therapist and on my own. I haven’t experienced immobilization for years, except briefly.

Next up: sympathetic hyperarousal/fight or flight.

An interview with Stephen Porges: polyvagal theory, or how the nervous system is affected in autism, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and trauma

Nexus, Colorado’s Holistic Health and Spirituality Journal.

This interview with Dr. Stephen Porges, whose career is based on understanding the evolution of the human nervous system, outlines some of the basics of polyvagal theory.

This theory is being tested in trauma recovery sessions. It’s exciting because it helps explain how and why people freeze or experience fight-flight reactions in response to trauma — and the route back to normal, healthy functioning, no matter how long ago the trauma occurred or how often it happened.

Polyvagal theory is increasingly becoming part of the training of bodyworkers, therapists, and educators. In a future post, I will describe how to tell which nervous system (freeze, fight or flight, or parasympathetic) is dominant at any given moment.

This theory is based on an in-depth understanding of the vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve, which wanders (the Latin word vagus means wandering, like vagabond and vagrant) from the brain stem down through the body, affecting the face, heart, lungs, and gut.

The brain evolved hierarchically in vertebrates, and the neural circuits of the older nervous systems are still present, accessed hierarchically.

RD: So one thing happens then another thing happens then another thing?

SP: Right. This influences how we react to the world. The hierarchy is composed of three neural circuits. One circuit may override another. We usually react with our newest system, and if that doesn’t work, we try an older one, then the oldest. We start with our most modern systems, and work our way backward.

So polyvagal theory considers the evolution of the autonomic nervous system and its organization; but it also emphasizes that the vagal system is not a single unit, as we have long thought. There are actually two vagal systems, an old one and a new one. That’s where the name polyvagal comes from.

The final, or newest stage, which is unique to mammals, is characterized by a vagus having myelinated pathways. The vagus is the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. There are two major branches. The most recent is myelinated and is linked to the cranial nerves that control facial expression and vocalization.

Here’s how it works in action:

SP: Let’s say you’re a therapist or a parent or a teacher, and one of your clients, students or children’s faces is flat, with no facial expression. The face has no muscle tone, the eyelids droop and gaze averts. It is highly likely that individual will also have auditory hypersensitivities and difficulty regulating his or her bodily state. These are common features of several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, borderline personality, bipolar, autism and hyperactivity. The neural system that regulates both bodily state and the muscles of the face goes off-line. Thus, people with these disorders often lack affect in their faces and are jittery, because their nervous system is not providing information to calm them down.

RD: How will polyvagal theory change treatment options for people with these disorders?

SP: Once we understand the mechanisms mediating the disorder, there will be ways to treat it. For example, you would no longer say “sit still” or punish a person because they can’t sit still. You would never say, “Why aren’t you smiling?” or “Try to listen better” or “Look in my eyes,” when these behaviors are absent. Often treatment programs attempt to teach clients to make eye contact. But teaching someone to make eye contact is often virtually impossible when the individual has a disorder, such as autism or bipolar disorder, because the neural system controlling spontaneous eye gaze is turned off. This newer, social engagement system can only be expressed when the nervous system detects the environment as safe.

There’s much more fascinating information you can read by clicking the link at the top of this post.